Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.